Dorothy Day's Duty of Delight

Interview With Editor of Diaries

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By Annamarie Adkins

MARYKNOLL, New York, MAY 13, 2008 (Zenit.or g).- Seventy-five years after Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and more than 25 years after she died, her diaries have been published for the first time.

The personal writings of the Catholic social activist, who was proclaimed a servant of God in 2000, begin in 1934 -- shortly after the Catholic Worker was founded -- and end days before her death in 1980.

Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, was asked to edit the diaries in 2005, and now has compiled the best of Day's writings in "The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day."

Ellsberg shared with ZENIT what motivated Day as a Catholic and a social reformer, and what gifts her canonization could bring to the Church.

Q: Who was Dorothy Day? What led her to the Catholic Church?

Ellsberg: Dorothy Day was a radical journalist who converted to Catholicism and who found a way, in the Catholic Worker movement that she co-founded in 1933 and directed until her death in 1980, to combine her faith with her passion for social justice.

She had rejected Christianity in her youth, feeling that Christians were too complacent about the status quo. But a series of events -- culminating in her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter -- led her to a profound experience of God's love.

In return, she felt irresistibly drawn to enter the Church, even though this meant separating from her "common-law husband," the father of her child.

Q: Why have you chosen to title her diaries, "The Duty of Delight"?

Ellsberg: This was a line that recurred frequently in her diaries. She herself contemplated using it as the title for one of her books.

Often, after a recital of drudgery and disappointment, she would simply write, "The duty of delight."

I think it was a reminder to seek God in all things. That is really the theme of her diary, which is a chronicle of her efforts to perform all the chores and duties of her daily life with love and joy.

Q: What are the basic principles of the Catholic Worker Movement that Dorothy Day founded?

Ellsberg: The Catholic Worker is an effort to live out the radical social implications of the Gospel. Jesus said we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.

The Catholic Worker has been centered in "houses of hospitality" for the practice of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless.

But Dorothy Day believed it was necessary not just to care for the poor; one must also protest and challenge the social structures that give rise to so much misery.

She was arrested many times in her life, particularly for her protests against preparations for war, but also, at the age of 75, for picketing with striking farm workers in California.

Q: Why was St. Thérèse of Lisieux Dorothy's favorite saint? Do you see the influence of St. Thérèse in Dorothy's diaries?

Ellsberg: Dorothy was profoundly attracted to St. Thérèse and even wrote a book about her. She embraced the "little way" and believed that the way to holiness was in the practice of all our everyday tasks in a spirit of love.

St. Thérèse wrote about her life in a convent as an arena for the practice of charity, patience, forgiveness.

Dorothy had the same experience in her life at the "Catholic Worker" surrounded by so many crazy, broken and often disagreeable people. Her spirituality was very much based on an effort to be more charitable and forgiving toward the people closest at hand.

And she believed these small efforts could have wide social impact -- like a pebble cast in a pond that sets forth ever-widening ripples.

Q: Although Dorothy Day chafed at the notion she was a saint, the cause for her canonization is under way. What is the status of her cause? What gifts could recognizing her sanctity bring to the universal church?

Ellsberg: Dorothy chafed at the idea of being put on a pedestal. She realized that most of us think of saints as perfect people. She felt completely unworthy of such idealization, and at the same time she didn't want to let people off the hook that easily: "Dorothy can do such things; after all, she's a saint!"

Dorothy had great reverence for the saints. Long before Vatican II, she spoke of the universal vocation to holiness, and she emphasized that we are all called to be saints. We are all called to put off the old person and put on Christ.

I think it will be plain to anyone reading her diaries that this was a woman who organized her daily life around her relationship with God, and I'm sure she will be eventually canonized.

In 2000 the Vatican accepted her cause and so she is officially a servant of God. A Dorothy Day Guild has been established in the Archdiocese of New York. But of course, these things move slowly.

I believe she brings many gifts to the Church.

First of all, unlike the vast majority of saints who were priests or religious, she was a layperson -- an unwed mother, at that -- who launched her movement without seeking any authorization from the Church.

She shows the great freedom in the Church and the responsibility we all have to listen to God's call and to respond in faith to the challenges of our time in history. She showed how to join the practice of charity with a passion for justice.

She helped the Church to rediscover the theme of Gospel nonviolence. And she serves as a great saint of "common ground," showing how it is possible to reconcile love for the Church with deep suffering over its failings.

In a culture that puts much emphasis on bigness, influence, and being noticed, she showed the power of simple faithfulness and being true to one's ideals and conscience.

Q: Many are unaware that Dorothy Day had an abortion early in life, before her conversion. Do you see her becoming the patron saint of women -- and men -- recovering from abortion?

Ellsberg: Although she did not ever write or speak about her abortion, this experience clearly helps to explain why her later pregnancy was such a momentous event; I think she experienced it as a sign of forgiveness and grace.

But I would be reluctant to single out this experience, which played no role in her public witness. I think it is more appropriate to call her the patron saint of the "seamless garment" or "consistent ethic of life" opposing abortion, but also capital punishment, war, torture, and all offenses against the sanctity of life.

Q: Almost every entry in the diary begins with Dorothy rising in the morning to attend Mass. What was the connection for her between the Mass and her work in pursuit of social justice?

Ellsberg: Dorothy believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and she felt absolutely sustained by it. But she also believed in the real presence of Christ in the poor.

She believed that the purpose of the liturgy was to help us live in a more conscious confrontation with Christ. As she wrote, "The mystery of the poor is that they are Jesus and what we do for them we do for him."

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On the Net:

"The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day":